A Perfect Thanksgiving: Local Man Meets German Stem Cell Donor

| November 30, 2018

CLARION, Pa. (EYT) – Craig Beary always has a lot to be thankful for on Thanksgiving but this year he had a chance to say thanks in person to the donor of stem cells for surgery to correct Aplastic Anemia – a rare disease he was diagnosed with in October 2006.

This was the first meeting between Beary and Mathias Schaller, of Germany, who made the donation after a match was determined from an International registry.

Aplastic Anemia is a rare blood disorder that does not allow the bone marrow to make enough new blood cells. Beary traveled to the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center where he was initially diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis.

“They did some prescription treatments starting in 2006 like medication and stuff and none of those seemed have success,” said Beary. “In 2008, one of my doctors said it would be best to have a stem cell transplant, so they tested me for stem cells and they went to the registry to try to find the perfect match. Three matches were picked, but at the time when I needed the transplant, they weren’t available for whatever reason.”

Doctors suggested a look at the international registry and they had a match within a week. Mathias Schaller comes from Wernau, Germany, a small town much like Clarion. He was inspired to become a donor after a kindergarten student in Wernau became ill and the town setup a registry drive where anyone could go and get tested via a simple mouth swab. The test was then sent to the lab and Schaller agreed to be contacted if he was a match.

He didn’t match the kindergarten student, but a year and a half later, Schaller received a phone call in which he was informed that he was an identical match for Beary in the United States. Asked if he would donate, Schaller quickly agreed.

According to Beary, the donor was given a daily injection for five days. The injection, a stem cell booster shot, boosted the donor’s white cell count. Once they had enough, it was then cycled through a machine that separates the stem cells from the other blood cells. The stem cells were packaged and transported to the U.S.

“I finished my semester at Clarion University on a Friday and I was in Pittsburgh the next day for the transplant,” said Beary. “On May 21, 2008, I had the transplant and it was a simple transfusion. Thirty minutes and it was over. They brought a green bag of stem cells that they used of like a basic blood transfusion, 30 minutes and it was over. Once the stem cells go into your blood, they have to go to the marrow and it takes a couple days just for this stuff to start going. They do blood work twice a day and once they see the red cells grow then they know that it’s taking hold.  I was in the hospital for 30 to 35 days and then they said they couldn’t do much more medically.”

“They basically gave me the medicine and said to come back once a week to see if I was okay. They cured my plastic anemia in about 3 to 4 months.”

IMG_3178 (Photo: (Left) Mathias and Rebecca Schaller and Craig Beary and finance Mindy Warnsing.)

First sign

The first hint that something was wrong was picked up by Craig’s mother Cindy, a nurse. She remarked that Craig looked jaundiced.

“I looked in the mirror and there was a yellowish color to my skin so I had some basic blood work done and it showed my liver functions were out of whack,” said Beary. “That was really my only tip-off. All of the testings revealed no hereditary influences. They believed it was environmental and they ask me a billion questions.”

Clarion County 9-1-1 Dispatcher

Craig, a 2004 graduate of Clarion-Limestone and 2009 graduate of Clarion University, started working as a Clarion County 9-1-1 dispatcher in September 2009 and has been there ever since.

“When I graduated I always wanted to be in law enforcement, but when I got ill it was kind of on hold. You can’t be an effective law-enforcement officer if you can’t deal with yourself.  I just graduated and was applying for a job and my father, Curly (Richard), brought me an ad that the 9-1-1 center was hiring and said this might be up my alley.”

“I began training and enjoyed it from the start. They tell you when you start – if you can basically get past five years you’re good at being a dispatcher because you have to be composed under pressure. You’re dealing with the public at their worst time in life. You can’t let that affect you mentally, physically, personally and it does take a certain kind of individual to stay calm under pressure and send help.”

Graft Versus Host Disease

Work allowed Beary to feel normal.  He was able to separate it by going to work every day. However, about a year and a half after the stem cell replacement, he started to experience Graft Versus Host Disease (GvHD), a life-threatening complication that can occur when the body attempts to reject a stem cell or bone marrow transplant.

“It started and it started off slowly, affecting my eyes, skin, esophagus, and then my lungs. My lungs were severely affected and in 2017 I was actually on oxygen and that’s how bad was. That’s when I got placed on the lung transplant list and in two months I got my lung transplant. It’s been a year now.”

Beary said he talked to local residents who also had lung transplants at UPMC such as Sid Miles of Clarion.

“The stem cells cured what I had, but the need for a new lung was caused by the rejection process. The past two or three years, I was on the decline. There was only one other alternative and I wasn’t taking that way out.”

“I’ll just say I thought the stem cell surgery was very difficult, but the lung transplant was a hundred times more difficult. I’ve always had good family support, good friend support… my high school friends sent me cards and I’m 15 years out of high school, my coworkers at the 9-1-1 center are always sending stuff and making sure I’m okay.”

“I’ve been a dispatcher for nearly 10 years and I enjoy it. They’ve been very accommodating of my condition since when I first started.”

“They never made that an issue.”

Thanksgiving visitor

Craig and Mathias tried for many years to have a face-to-face reunion and Craig was a little nervous because they had only “talked” over Facebook.  However, once he arrived in Clarion it was like Craig was looking in a mirror.

“Even though we only talked on Facebook a few times, it felt like we knew each other. There was no awkward introduction. It was like come on in and sit down.”

Mathias and wife Rebecca moved to White Plains, New York, for work and for past two years and Craig said he was free in November and Mathias thought Thanksgiving would be a perfect time to visit.

“I guess our body language is similar. When he walked into my parents’ house I noticed his jacket was similar and it was actually the same jacket except for the different color. I have already heard how similar we looked in photographs, but then when you see somebody in person and stand next to him, and the movies and the music we like. There were a ton of similarities being from Clarion and him being from (a small town in Germany), we’re only three years apart, we were very close, and the things we like to do.”

Craig and his finance, Mindy Warnsing, gave the visitors a tried and true tour of the Clarion area, including dinner at the Gateway Lodge, drinks at Toby Hill Bar & Grill, and breakfast at the County Seat the next morning.

“I showed them the 9-1-1 Center where I work, went to the trestle, showed them where I went to high school (Clarion-Limestone), the university and some other Clarion spots before they headed home.”

Mathias and Rebecca will be moving back to Germany in the future, so it’s unclear if the two will ever meet again, but Craig thinks it was a perfect Thanksgiving.

“I got to be with my family and friends I got to see him and his wife. You can’t ask for anything better than that.”

Meanwhile, Mindy and Craig are thinking about their wedding plans. Mindy has been with Craig for three years and the two met at the 9-1-1 center where she was also a part-time dispatcher. She still works part-time at 9-1-1 in Clarion and is also a police officer in Ford City and Brookville.

Mindy was with Craig for the years that led up to the lung transplant and one can only imagine that is one more thing for which he is thankful.

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